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Preparing the Torturers

Updated on June 17, 2018

It has been proved through examining ancient Greek soldiers, running experiments in a laboratory, and from the evidence of Abu Ghraib that under the right set of circumstances, anyone can be a torturer. To prove this belief, both readings referenced the famous Milgram experiment which examined the relationship between obedience and authority. From this study, Milgram concluded that the reasons people obey or disobey authority falls into three categories: personal history, binding, and strain. While binding is associated with positive feelings towards obedience, strain deals with the unpleasant emotions. Milgram argued that “when binding factors are more powerful that the strain of cooperating, people will do as they were told.” His experiment, while controversial, showed that if an authority figure was responsible for the outcome, almost no participants refused to administer shocks since the binding factors outweighed the strain of hurting others. However, the experiment also showed that sequential action is one of many binding factors that leads people to continue administering painful shocks. Bauman’s article argued that an “unwillingness to reevaluate and condemn one’s own past conduct will still remain a powerful and even more powerful stimulus to plod on long after ‘the cause’ has petered out.” Ancient Greek militaries also saw the importance of obedience to authority and thus implemented an intense screening and training processes to ensure the creation of a ruthless army. For a soldier to be considered for an elite rank, they had to demonstrate hostile attitudes towards the enemy, aggression, strength of mind and body, blind trust for authority, and the ability to keep their mouths shut. Once they passed this screening, the soldiers were isolated into this “separate world” where torture was encouraged. The soldiers had incentives such as leaves of absence for getting confessions and faced punishments for sympathizing with the prisoners. One soldier reported “an officer used to tell us that if a warder helps a prisoner, he will take the prisoner’s place and the whole platoon will flog him.” Along with this system of reinforcement, the military stressed the ability to desensitize its soldiers to abuse. They accomplished this by slowing introducing the soldiers to torture. First by simply watching veterans beat prisoners, then participating in a group beating, and finally a promotion that allowed them to torture on their own. If this belief that under the right circumstances anyone can be a torturer is true, then the MP’s at Abu Ghraib wouldn’t be responsible at first for their blind obedience because in their own words “they were just following orders.” Since the binding of following orders was greater than the strain of disobeying a command, the MP’s resorted to torture. Thus, the ones in charge of Abu Ghraib who were giving the orders are responsible for the torture that took place. However, like the Milgram experiment showed, the MP’s could have backed out of their duties, but they, like 65% of the participants in the Milgram experiment, choose not to because that would mean reevaluating what they had already done and questioning their morals. For this reason, the MP’s are partially to blame because they had the option to back out once the situation escalated but refused to do so because that would mean admitting that what they were doing was wrong.


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